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  • "Recipientes per contemplationem, tradentes per actionem":The Relation between the Active and Contemplative Lives according to Thomas Aquinas
  • Rik Van Nieuwenhove

IN CONTRAST TO the subject of beatitude and its sources,1 the cognate topic of contemplation in Aquinas has not received any major scholarly attention in recent decades. This is surprising, given the centrality of contemplation in Aquinas's thought and the way he conceives of the Christian life.2

In a recent and helpful contribution, however, Mary Catherine Sommers revisits the theme.3 After referring to question 182, article 1 of the Secunda secundae, where Aquinas offers eight arguments from Aristotle "that the contemplative life is unconditionally better than the active life"4 she goes on to [End Page 1] claim: "it would seem that the conclusion that the contemplative life is 'unconditionally better' than the active life is firmly established in the Summa theologiae and throughout Thomas Aquinas's works. . . . Nevertheless, writing his 'life of Jesus' in the Tertia Pars, Aquinas firmly recants this reasoning."5 Sommers backs up this claim by quoting a passage from question 40, article 1 of the Tertia pars (STh III, q. 40, a. 1, ad 2), which reads (in her translation):

As stated in the Second Part, the contemplative life is unconditionally better than the active [life] which concerns itself with bodily acts; but the type of life in which someone gives to others the products of contemplation through preaching and teaching, is more perfect than the life which is devoted solely to contemplation, because such a life presupposes an abundance of contemplation. And thus Christ chose this kind of life.6

Sommers asserts that by incorporating in objection 2 of this article a reference to his earlier view (outlined in STh II-II, q. 182, a. 1), Aquinas is "letting us know that he has changed his mind"—a change she describes as "sudden and, in some [End Page 2] sense, unprecedented."7 In short, Sommers claims that Aquinas drastically revised his views in question 188 of the Secunda secundae, where, "at the eleventh hour," he discovered "a type of active life that is not constituted totaliter by exterior activity."8 This newly conceived type of active life refers to an active life which draws on the riches of contemplation.

Although Sommers's essay is brief, it contains a wealth of insights and views, many of which I have not been able to mention (such as, for instance, a helpful outline of the different senses of contemplation). In light of her provoking thesis, I want to address the question whether Aquinas changed his mind "at the eleventh hour," that is, towards the end of the Secunda secundae. And if not, how exactly does Aquinas conceive of the relation between the active and contemplative lives from the beginning of his career?

It is remarkable—but perhaps understandable, given the constraints of a short essay—that Sommers never refers to Aquinas's first theological synthesis, in which we find an extended treatment of the relation between the active and contemplative lives (III Sent., d. 35, q. 1). I am not aware of any scholarship that actually engages with this text in any depth. This article will provide a fairly close reading of what Aquinas has to say on the issue in the Scriptum, although I will occasionally refer to parallel passages from the Summa, without discussing Aquinas's later views in any great detail. Given the confines of this contribution I will also refrain from discussing the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which forms the topic of the next question in the Scriptum (III Sent., d. 35, q. 2). As is well known, Aquinas radically changed his mind on the role of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and the way they relate to the active and contemplative lives: while in his Commentary on the Sentences the gifts are intimately connected with the contemplative [End Page 3] and active lives, by the time he writes the Secunda secundae the gifts are discussed in the context of the theological and cardinal virtues.9 When it comes to the relation between the active and contemplative lives, however, I do not detect...


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